AIDS Literature Analysis

Early AIDS Literature, 1981-1988

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The earliest AIDS literature is often testimonial. The earliest gay AIDS novel is Paul Reed’s Facing It (1984). This novel describes the beginning of the AIDS panic in 1981-1982. Reed uses simple medical terminology and the AIDS-afflicted gay male character rapidly deteriorates, which was common in that time. Barbara Peabody’s The Screaming Room: A Mother’s Journal of Her Son’s Struggle with AIDS (1986) offers a testimonial tribute to her son. She cared for him in the final stages of his illness and her loving description testifies to her son’s fine qualities as a man and a son. Paul Monette’s Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog (1988) uses poetry to highlight Monette’s relationship with his lover, who died of AIDS in 1986. This poetry serves as a testament to their bond throughout the trials of maintaining a relationship over an extended period of time and during a terminal illness. Monette also produced Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir (1988), which chronicles his own struggle with AIDS while his lover dies of AIDS. This autobiographical work received critical acclaim and was widely read.

Additional works of fiction include Alice Hoffman’s best-selling novel At Risk (1988), which provided a first exposure to the specter of AIDS for many middle-class suburban readers. This novel has a child protagonist who is infected through a blood transfusion. Young adult author M. E. Kerr published Night Kites in 1986, which has the protagonist trying to come to terms with his gay older brother’s HIV-positive status. Another young adult novel is Good-Bye Tomorrow (1987) by Gloria Miklowitz. Again, the protagonist has AIDS as a result of a...

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AIDS Literature After 1988

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

AIDS literature was being produced in small amounts during the first era of AIDS awareness, from 1981 to 1988. At that time, many of the texts were elegiac in tone, but by late 1988 there was a change in the tone. Some of the literature was more openly angry and critical of slow governmental response to the outbreak. Some authors broadened their perspective and, rather than tell a first-person story of their immediate experience with AIDS, made powerful suggestions about what was to be done. The literature of the first period concerns itself with the experience of the problem; the literature of the second period also concerns itself with the realization that the problem is not going to go away. AIDS became part of a continuing landscape; the first AIDS pieces with a historical perspective were written. By 1991, AIDS had been evident in North American culture for approximately a decade. AIDS literature became increasingly knowledgeable about AIDS symptoms and treatments. The focus shifted from tales of those dying to tales of those living with the virus. The names of those living with the AIDS virus more often became public knowledge; the stigma diminished somewhat. The cultural response to the virus became, to an extent, less one of fear and more one of compassion.

There is no stronger visual representation of the impact of AIDS upon the individual than the NAMES Project, or the AIDS quilt. These quilt blocks, each one lovingly created in the memory of an AIDS-deceased person, have been presented in many communities. Cindy Ruskin’s book, The Quilt: Stories from the NAMES Project (1988), depicts the colorful quilt blocks and the beginnings of the project.


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AIDS Literature Bibliography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Aggleton, Peter, and Hilary Homans, eds. Social Aspects of AIDS. New York: The Falmer Press, 1988. Essays on the presence of AIDS internationally and on the language of AIDS.

Murphy, Timothy F., and Suzanne Poirier, eds. Writing AIDS: Gay Literature, Language, and Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Critiques AIDS fiction, the depiction of AIDS on television, and AIDS testimonials.

Nelson, Emmanuel S., ed. AIDS: The Literary Response. New York: Twayne, 1992. Analyzes American and other works of AIDS fiction, drama, and cinema.

Pastore, Judith Laurence, ed. Confronting AIDS Through Literature: The Responsibilities of Representation. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Provides samples of AIDS literature and AIDS curriculum.

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. Unravels the development of AIDS in the United States, the governmental and medical community response, and the political activism created by the outbreak.

Sontag, Susan. AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989. A companion text to Illness as Metaphor. Examines the presence of AIDS in American culture and the meaning attached to AIDS as an illness.